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Retail employment dips in February

Employment growth across all industries slowed dramatically in February and retail was not immune to the slowdown.

Retail industry employment in February was down by 6,100 jobs seasonally adjusted from January and down 5,300 jobs unadjusted year-over-year, the Labor Department said on Friday. The retail numbers, which exclude restaurants, came as the nation saw a monthly gain of only 20,000 jobs overall, a fraction of the 311,000-job gain seen in January.

“February’s employment numbers are another surprise, but I really doubt these figures are indicative of the strength of the economy given the overall trends,” NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said. “There are a lot of moving parts in play and a lot of noise masking the signal.”

Kleinhenz noted that February’s employment numbers may have been impacted unfavorable winter weather, carryover from the adverse effects of the government shutdown and the sorting out of the recent volatility in the financial markets.

“Given the outsized strength of January employment, it’s best to look at the longer-term averages for a better understanding of the trends, both for the economy overall and for retail,” he said.

Andrew Challenger, VP of global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said that fallout from the shutdown certainly contributed to the low number of jobs added in February. But, he added, “it was only a matter of time before the economy began to reign in these high hiring numbers.”

Despite the small number reported today, the overall economy saw an average monthly gain of 166,000 jobs over the past two months when January and February are combined. February’s retail job losses followed an increase of 13,700 jobs in January from December. And retail’s three-month moving average as of February showed an increase of 11,400 jobs.

February saw a month-over-month gain of 4,000 jobs at food and beverage stores, 3,200 at building materials and supplies stores, and 2,400 at electronics and appliance stores, but they were offset by losses of 11,700 at health and personal care stores and 3,100 at general merchandise stores.

Economy-wide, average hourly earnings in February were up 11 cents over January to $27.66, a year-over-year increase of 3.4%. The Labor Department said unemployment was 3.8%, down from 4% in January.

Kleinhenz noted that retail job numbers reported by the Labor Department do not provide an accurate picture of the industry because they count only employees who work in stores while excluding retail workers in other parts of the business such as corporate headquarters, distribution centers, call centers and innovation labs.
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